Samantha Finkenbinder says her husband never regained consciousness after he was "buzzed" by a floatplane on a Southwest Alaska River in the summer of 2014 and suffered severe brain damage.
On the afternoon of June 25, 2014, Travis Finkenbinder was driving an 18-foot skiff down the Mulchatna River, about 65 miles northeast of Dillingham. He and a second boat operator were heading downriver to drop the skiffs off, with Finkenbinder leading the way.
Behind them, commercial pilot Benjamin P. Hancock was flying a de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver. Both men were on the job at the time.
Hancock buzzed the two boat operators — he flew his plane intentionally low above them for fun. The plane flew about 15 feet above the second boat operator, who said he watched as it then dipped even lower and grazed Finkenbinder's head.
"My husband never heard or saw what happened to him," Finkenbinder said.
Hancock was sentenced last week to a $25,000 fine, probation and restitution. He pleaded guilty to assault in the third degree on Oct. 30, admitting he'd hit Finkenbinder with his aircraft.
"(If) what happened to my husband, this tragedy, can give a second thought to a pilot in the future who might want to buzz somebody for the thrill of it, if it can make them just have a second thought to check themselves, that's really all I can ask for," Finkenbinder said.
Initially, Hancock told investigators that his airplane encountered a downdraft and he hadn't intended to fly that low.
But according to the National Transportation Safety Board's final report, issued in the summer of 2016, investigators found the cause of the accident to be Hancock's "improper decision" to fly at a low altitude "deliberately in close proximity to the boat operators."
Hancock was indicted on an assault charge in November 2016. Neither Hancock nor his attorney returned a call seeking comment for the story.
Travis Finkenbinder, now 44, fell and struck his head on the side of the boat after being hit. He suffered hemmorhaging in his brain. His sinuses were crushed upon impact, his wife said, blocking his airways and restricting the oxygen to his brain. Hancock later told investigators he saw Finkenbinder's boat spinning in circles in the river.
That evening, when Finkenbinder made it to an Anchorage emergency room, doctors told his family to prepare themselves to say goodbye.
"They fully expected Travis to die on the gurney in the next couple of hours," Finkenbinder said.
Now, more than three years later, Finkenbinder is in a "minimally conscious state," which his wife described as one step above a persistent vegetative state. He can't talk, but there are moments when he's more aware of himself and his environment. He'll make a thumbs up if you ask. But five minutes later, he might not.
"Travis has never been conscious since the moment that airplane hit him," Finkenbinder said.
Finkenbinder spends more than 12 hours a day in a wheelchair. His nutrition comes from a feeding tube. He is at constant risk for aspiration, because he can't swallow properly, his wife said. With brain damage expected to atrophy the most critical parts of his brain, Finkenbinder was given about 10 years to live from the time of the accident.
The family moved to Wasilla to be closer to a hospital. Emergency room doctors know them by name, Samantha Finkenbinder said.
Finkenbinder said Monday that she was disappointed the case hadn't gone to trial, which may have resulted in a steeper punishment. But, she got what she had truly wanted, she said – for Hancock to admit to what he had done.
Hancock and Finkenbinder were close friends, Samantha Finkenbinder said. She called Hancock's initial statements denying that he had buzzed Finkenbinder a "massive betrayal."
Hancock was sentenced to a $25,000 fine, additional restitution, and will be on probation for three years. Anchorage assistant district attorney Allison O'Leary said Hancock's pilot's license had been revoked. An FAA spokesperson could not immediately verify that information.
Finkenbinder said she will receive only the life insurance premium payments that her husband had made prior to losing the policy, which amounts to less than $10,000 in restitution.
She hopes her story will shed light on unsafe flying practices. "In the state of Alaska, buzzing is a real issue, and it's a lot more common than people know," Finkenbinder said.